Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Research - can you do too much?

My gut reaction is “no”, but maybe that’s simply because I’ve come to really enjoy the process. It never enters my head that I can begin work on any novel without doing some degree of research. I think it’s partially because I love learning anyway, but I also want to make sure that I can get each story as ‘real’ as possible.

But, saying that, I think that research can have its limits in regards to the story it’s helping to tell. You need to know when enough is enough. When dealing with a novel, you don’t want it to turn into something showing off everything you might have learned. That usually comes out in some form of over-description; too much emphasis is placed on the surroundings, or the concept of the story, than on the story itself. It distracts from the fundamental points: characters, plot, emotional response. Your readers get alienated, and they put the book down.

I think research is particularly important for the fantasy genre. It can be so easy to fall into the trope that because it’s fantasy, you can make everything up. And to an extent, yes you can. But there’s no point spinning the tallest tale if you can’t back it up with some degree of rationality. Everything needs to have rules, and you need to stick to them. The laws of gravity still need to apply, and if for some reason they don’t, that’s a thread that can’t be left untied. The same can be said about practically anything to do with any novel. If it’s set in another country, it’s best to find out everything you can about that country. If it’s set in another time period, the same idea applies. 

The point I’m trying to make is that, personally, I think the best way to use research can be to enhance the author’s confidence. It’s not necessarily a case of trying to turn yourself into some kind of self-made expert on whatever the subject is – just familiarising yourself with it. If you’re writing about something you know, it comes naturally. You don’t have to constantly think about the words that you’re putting down on the page. As a result, the writing is a lot more fluid, and in turn, more believable.

The ‘grunt work’ that I do for all my novels – plotting, researching, and figuring out the characters – always takes a lot longer than the actual writing. I do as much research as I can, about as many aspects of the story as I can. If I have the opportunity to get out and actually experience them firsthand, then I do. One thing I remember spending hours on for Blindsighted Wanderer was details about medieval musical instruments. 90% of all that stuff doesn’t even end up in the final story. But because I know about it, it helps me play off whatever information does become part of the actual narrative.

So, coming back to the research idea, I think it can be a double-edged sword. There’s a fine line between making a story believable and it turning into a lecture. I adore novels that have the power to transport you completely into their world through that kind of balance, and I really hope that mine can have the same effect. At the end of the day, they are a work of fiction, not factual books. And one of the greatest strengths of good fiction is to transport us away from reality for a little while, by relying on basic rationality - not by overwhelming us with it.

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